Democracy in the Digital Age: Challenges, Opportunities, Implications (55+)

As the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States demonstrated, political processes, actors and institutions are dramatically affected by the online world. How are the internet and associated electronic platforms shaping democracy? How has the internet’s early promise of increased access and freedom played out in reality?

We will explore the origins and nature of democracy and civil society, and how they have been impacted by the rise of global culture and social media. We’ll cover phenomena such as clickbait, “free” online content and intentionally addictive internet platforms. In our explorations, we will engage with how the internet, a new civic space, is influencing individuals, wider society, and the practice and meaning of citizenship.

Note: Back by popular demand, from fall 2018.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Part One: Democracy: What is it?

Week 1: Democracy: The theory

We explore the origins of democracy as a system of governance, using canonical texts of political science—Locke, Rousseau and Mill. We explain the difference between republican and liberal democracy, representative and direct democracy. In framing our future classes, this week offers a crash course in the origins and promise of democracy as a radical form of government.

Week 2: Democratic government: The basics

We introduce the institutional characteristics of democracies (in contrast to non-democratic systems of government)—rule of law, judicial independence, a merit-based public service, free and fair elections. Electronic platforms have already significantly affected these institutions, from the promise of electronic voting and referenda, to the new informational environment provided by sites like WikiLeaks to facilitate whistleblowers and unauthorized dumps of information. We look at the ways in which democracy itself is shaped by the new electronic platforms.

Week 3: Civil society and democracy

What is civil society, and why is it regarded as one of the most essential features of democratic life?  How has civil society been expressed, historically? What concerns arise when we begin to think about the role of civil society in politics? In many ways, electronic media have facilitated the emergence of a global culture. How has the internet brought about a sense of global citizenship and fellowship? How does the internet challenge the idea of state-centred politics?  What does the internet change about state sovereignty?

Part Two: The digital world and democracy

Week 4: The arrival of the internet

We start with a brief history of how the internet came into being. We also explore the advent of smartphones and other portable internet-enabled devices as another game-changer in the internet’s permeation of the lives of citizens. Finally, we discuss the emergence of social media platforms. Throughout our discussion, we engage with the tension between the early promise of the internet as a space for increased access and freedom, and its current expression, shaped by corporate interests

Week 5: Your brain, on the internet

We introduce some of the key concepts in political psychology, bringing in developments in cognitive psychology to help understand the limits of rationality in human behavior. We explore the impact of behavioural design in creating ‘addictive’ on-line platforms and content that deliberately undermines rational and measured thought. We also highlight the implications of this manipulation for democratic governance and citizenship.

Week 6: Building civil society in digital space

We look at how the advent of social media platforms in particular change the media industry as a business, considering the impact of phenomena like clickbait, concerns about the reliability and verifiability of information, and the significance of ‘free’ content in shaping public opinion.  The internet transforms our experience of public space in many ways, as social media platforms increasingly replace face-to-face interactions between citizens. We explore the impact of this shift, and discuss rising concerns about pervasive on-line surveillance and its effects on privacy.

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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